“inerrancy doesn’t describe what the Bible does”–some comments from my ETS talk

NEW2Five-Views-on-Biblical-Inerrancy-e1379613921481I could have sworn I posted this months ago, but didn’t. So here it is.

These are my comments I gave at the Evangelical Theological Society in Baltimore last November as part of the panel discussing the book I contibuted to (along with Al Mohler, John Franke, Michael Bird, and Kevin Vanhoozer), Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. Each of us had 15 minutes for some remarks before we began engaging each other.

In retrospect I don’t think much was accomplished–nor could it be–in that setting and at that venue. Neither do I think the volume can have the kind of impact some might have hoped for, since–at least I felt–most of our time was spent staking out territory rather than engaging substantive issues.

If we had had one more pass at each other, I would have asked some pointed questions re: the nature of biblical scholarship and “evangelical biblical scholarship,” especially of Vanhoozer and Bird, as I felt their essays and responses in the volume perpetuated certain idiosyncrasies and apologetic tropes (which I go into in my brief responses to each of them), and I expected a bit more from them (particularly of Bird, as his training is in biblical scholarship).

So, the 15 minute presentation I gave at ETS is my attempt to go a bit more into my view on inerrancy from a slightly different angle to address some general issues that remained for me after the volume had been completed.

It’s a bit longish as a post (2000 words), but I’ve done worse.

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1. Inerrancy prescribes the Bible–and God–too narrowly

The title of my essay [in the book] is “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.” What I mean is this:

However inerrancy may be defined—whether strictly or in its more nuanced, progressive varieties (both types are represented in this book)—however it is defined, in my opinion inerrancy doesn’t sit well with what I see when I open my Bible and read it.

As I see it, inerrancy prescribes the boundaries of biblical interpretation in ways that creates conflict both inner-canonically and with respect to extra-biblical information. This is why “holding on to inerrancy” (as it is often put) seems to be such a high-maintenance activity, requiring vigilant and constant tending.

This dynamic suggests to me not only that the term may not be an apt descriptor of Scripture, but it virtually guarantees continued unrest within evangelicalism whenever alternate voices are raised.

In my opinion, a strict, literalistic, inerrantist position requires more intellectual isolation that I am not willing to grant—as I’m sure a good number here would agree. A more progressive variety is marked by such things as a true working respect for the Bible’s literary qualities, genres, and historical settings, which tends to temper a strict inerrantist model. But here, too, the ceiling for me remains too low.

If I may play on that spatial metaphor for a moment—strict inerrancy, hermeneutically speaking, is like crawling on my belly through a low and narrow tunnel; progressive inerrancy (and pardon the reductionism) is like wandering though a house—but with 5-foot ceilings.

It’s good to be able to get on my feet, but I can’t stand up straight without hitting my head and after a while my back is so stiff I couldn’t straighten up if I wanted to.

In other words, as I see it, a progressive form of inerrancy (a position voiced by two of our co-authors) still does not provide the room to address the data and give the sorts of answers that I feel are warranted and necessary.

In order to allow for the types of interpretive conclusions, genre designations, and hermeneutical strategies that I am convinced need to be applied to Scripture, I would have to redefine inerrancy in ways that would leave me feeling dishonest—my own Inigo Montoya moment from Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” This is why, beginning in 2007, I discontinued my membership to ETS. Nothing personal.

Perhaps the root theological misgiving for me is that inerrancy prescribes biblical interpretation too narrowly because it prescribes God too narrowly.

The premise all inerrantists hold to on some level—albeit in varying degrees—is that an inerrant Bible is the only kind of book that, logically, God would be able to produce, the only means by which a truth-telling God would communicate.

As I see it, the rhythmic, recurring, generational tensions over inerrancy within evangelicalism are fueled by the distance between this a priori theological expectation about God and how his book should behave, and the persistently non-cooperative details of biblical interpretation.

I think of inerrancy as a model of Scripture. Models are brought forward to explain a set of phenomena. If they do not adequately address the phenomena, then the model ceases having compelling explanatory value, and is usually set aside in favor of others models.

One can refine or nuance any model, to be sure, but how much nuancing can inerrancy handle? And when we keep in mind inerrancy’s function within evangelicalism, which has been essentially defensive, to keep out wrong thinking, then too much nuancing removes many of inerrancy’s teeth.

2. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy prescribes an unworkable model of Scripture

The prescriptive function of inerrancy is showcased in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, both in terms of its own rhetoric as well as in the authority subsequently bequeathed to it in evangelical culture. I feel this prescriptive function has obstructed the kind of critical dialogue clearly surfacing within evangelicalism.

I’d like to mention here just one issue to illustrate: how the Chicago Statement connects truth, God, and Scripture. We find this very early on, in the section entitled “A Short Statement,” which consists of five assertions intended to set parameters for what follows.

The first statement speaks of God “who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only.” This opening premise is critical to the rhetoric of the Chicago Statement: it links inerrancy with the very nature of God, which is, indeed a common defense of inerrancy.

But I am not willing to give this assertion a free ride.

First, it implies that those who critique inerrancy stand in opposition to God himself. This is a conversation-stopper and, if taken to heart, erects a wholly insulated, self-referential system of thought, which is in fact what has happened.

Second, what is missing here, at the outset of the Chicago Statement where it would be most appropriate to include it, is hermeneutical self-consciousnessa reflection on the nature of the truth that God speaks…in ancient texts.

That the Chicago Statement doesn’t give even a nod here to the hermeneutical and theological dimensions of discussing God, truth, and Scripture is more than just a gaping hole: it colors the document from beginning to end and renders it entirely inadequate for engaging the very issues that bring the inadequacies of inerrancy to light.

What should be brought explicitly to the forefront here—at the outset—is the manner in which God speaks in Scripture, namely through the idioms, attitudes, assumptions, and general worldviews of the ancient authors. I know the Chicago Statement makes a subtle overture to this later on, but too ambiguous, too little, and too late.

3. Israel believed in many gods

Consider the phenomenon in the Old Testament: that Israel’s God is not the only deity but one of many.

For example, in Psalm 95 Yahweh’s greatness is proclaimed by means of a comparison with other gods: “Yahweh is the great God, he great king above all gods.”

Job 1-2 and Psalm 82 begin with Yahweh presiding over a divine council. In Job the scene is quickly dominated by “the accuser,” but in Psalm 82 Yahweh is chiding the other gods for not meeting out justice on earth as they should.

And in Exodus 12:12, the last plague is described as Yahweh’s crowning judgment on “all the gods of Egypt.”

Since, as we are told in the Chicago Statement, in Scripture it is God who speaks, and God speaks only truth, and would neither deceive nor mislead us—what are we to conclude? That there are in fact other gods, some of whom are subordinate to Yahweh and others with whom he contends?

One could suggest ad hoc solutions: these aren’t gods but angels or demons or hyperbole. But the Old Testament doesn’t say any of this, and making things up to protect dogma is never a good idea.

God, who (according to inerrantist rhetoric) speaks only truth when telling us about himself, says “gods.” If “days are days” (Genesis 1), floods are floods, dead Canaanites are dead Canaanites, then surely gods are gods.

Right? Shouldn’t the inerrantist logic be followed through to the end?

Or consider Deuteronomy 32:8, where the high god Elyon—known to us also from Ugaritic religion—apportions the nations to the lesser gods, one of whom is Yahweh, whose “portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share”—and so Kemosh gets Moab, Baal gets the Canaanites, and so forth.

(You’ll need to consult a good commentary or study Bible to see this. Early Jewish scribes changed the text to conform to strict monotheistic standards. English Bibles reflect this later “corrected” reading, but without seeing it in translation notes you’d never know it.)

Are we–according to inerrantist logic–bound by Scripture and the truth-telling God who speaks therein to say, therefore, that Israel’s God, like the other gods, is ethnically and geographically bound and answers to a higher authority?

The language of the Chicago Statement is not helpful to me in these instances. What does it mean to speak of these sorts of things as “truth” from God and therefore “inerrant”?

I understand that inerrancy, as it is commonly defended, only pertains to what the Bible teaches or affirms (as some of my co-authors repeat)—but I see a lot of teaching or at least affirming going on here in these verses.

If these texts that tell us about God aren’t at least “affirming” something, I’m not sure what the word means.

I also realize these descriptions of God aren’t everywhere in the Old Testament, but does that really matter? Are we free to “pick and choose” what we want to believe?

These statement are so…clear…God is speaking clearly….if we don’t follow his plain word here, what reason would we have to follow his word anywhere? The next thing we’ll be doing in denying the resurrection.

Forgive the rhetoric. I’m just trying to make a point, and I hope it is not too subtle.

4. Inerrancy doesn’t describe what the Bible does

I don’t think the gods of the ancient Near East exist, nor did our God ever preside over a heavenly board meeting, nor was he ever under the authority Elyon.

I do believe, however, that the ancient Israelites believed that, but that does not mean that their belief at this moment in redemptive history represents absolute “spiritual reality” so to speak.

Now why do I say that? It’s not because I disrespect the Bible. I have two reasons.

One reason is the New Testament. A canonical view leads us further along the biblical plot line, so to speak, and so I believe that there is one God not many (a view that is already echoed in other portions of the Old Testament).

Scripture is varied and on the move, and so for inner-biblical reasons alone, I don’t expect every part of Scripture—even those parts that talk about God—to provide absolute, unerring, truth.

The second reason is what we know through historical and archaeological work about the ancient tribal environment in which the ancient Israelites participated. Understanding something about the world of the Bible can help us here.

The way God is described in Job or the Psalms, etc., makes perfect sense in that cultural context. But the opening assertion of the Chicago Statement, that God “who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only” –that seems off topic to me, words not designed to address what we are seeing here.

I apply this same sort of thinking to the three issues discussed in our book, especially two of them—the historicity of the fall of Jericho and God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites.

To understand both I appeal to (1) the gospel movement away from tribal thinking about God, and (2) to archaeological and literary data from Israel’s cultural context.

This is why I draw the rather common, almost mundane, conclusion (and you have to read my essay in the book to get the details) that the stories of Jericho and Canaanite extermination are (1) not “historical” in any sense that we normally use the word, nor do they (2) provide a binding, permanent, absolute picture of God.

I can certainly understand and respect why ancient Israelites would speak this way. But, like the issue of many gods in the Old Testament, this doesn’t mean that the Jericho and Canaanite extermination episodes are the final word historically or theologically.

I do not believe I am dismissing the Old Testament, nor is this (for heaven’s sake!) dualistic Marcionism, which says the Gods of the Old Testament are two different Gods. I am not saying there are two gods; one God is the God of Scripture. But God is portrayed differently by the biblical writers at different times and places.

Within the Old Testament God is already portrayed in diverse ways. In the Gospel, Christians believe, the fuller gaze on God is provided through the Gospel.

Acknowledging this diverse portrait of God, especially when getting to the New Testament, is simply an aspect of grappling with “Bible in context” and the canonical complexity of the problem of continuity and discontinuity between the testaments.

And doing so is simply to participate in the Christian theological project that has been part of the church’s consciousness since Paul and the Gospel writers–what do we do with the story of Israel in light of the Christ event? This isn’t anything new.

5. An “Incarnational Model” is more helpful

For me, inerrancy or the Chicago Statement don’t come close to addressing this fundamental hermeneutical challenge for Christian readers of the Bible.

I do continue to think, however, that an incarnational model of Scripture is helpful. It’s not new. I didn’t invent it. Some form of it goes back at the very least to Athanasius. And no one, least of all me, is claiming by this analogy I am claiming a hypostatic union in Scripture (!!).

It’s an analogy—explaining one thing by means of another. The main purpose of this analogy is to present a vision of Scripture where historical context ceases being such a huge doctrinal hurdle, a problem to be solved, and becomes yet another picture of how God willingly and lovingly participates in the human drama.

It provides theological language for why the Bible acts so…ancient, why we see the use of mythic language and concepts in the Old Testament—a heavenly boardroom scene—or why Israel’s God is portrayed as a tribal warrior for whom mass killings seem to be his preferred method of conflict resolution.

I don’t think inerrancy is the right category for wrapping my arms around Scripture’s complex dynamic.

But a God who is in the business of meeting us where we are (this is good news) and a Scripture that displays for us this energetic, relentless—and mysterious—interplay of the Spirit of God and ancient cultures…well, I’m not saying I get it. And I do understand this thought may be troubling, to some more than others.

But as C. S. Lewis puts it, the incarnation is after all “an incurably irreverent doctrine.” It’s not comfortable. It’s even a bit unsettling when we think of how God likes to show up.

An incarnational model is not the only or best way to think of the Bible at all times. But when the topic turns to historical matters—the core of our book and heart of the inerrancy debate—it at least gives me theological language by which to talk about what I see in Scripture with respect and awe.

To sum up, inerrancy for me is a model of Scripture that does not describe well what Scripture does. Perhaps in our current moment, God is not calling us to reinvigorate a defense, become entrenched, or formulate more complex and subtle defenses of what we feel the Bible needs to be, but to teach future generations—in the academy, the church, and the world—better ways of meeting God in the Scripture we have.


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